Child left behind

Welcome to the law and education blog.  In my first post, I thought it would be appropriate to share this very powerful article that was published in the New York Times three days ago, called A Lost Student.   Although I don’t know her, the author of this essay went to my law school around the same time as me.  In the essay, she writes about a student named Patrick, whom she helped when she worked for Teach for America in Arkansas.

Patrick began coming to class. Like a matchmaker, I helped him find books he might like. When he read, he laughed out loud. And reading made him want to write. It was painful, at times, to watch Patrick write, because half of what he wrote he erased. Every word that let him down he viewed as a personal failure — he wrote like a writer. I took away his pencil and gave him a pen.

His progress made me happy. By the spring, Patrick’s reading had jumped two levels. At a school ceremony, he won the award for “Most Improved.” He looked surprised. Sheepishly, he walked up to the stage. He turned to the students, who were still clapping, and then, suddenly, he raised both arms up in the air: a victory pose. Everybody laughed.

It was some two and a half years later, when I was at law school in the Northeast, that I learned Patrick was arrested for stabbing and killing someone.

The end of the essay is quietly devastating.  It brought tears to my eyes.  It is a fitting story for the first post of this blog because it describes the magnificent difference a mentor could make in a student’s life, and how frail the fruit of that effort is.  It is a story of the enormous potential in everyone, the power of education to unleash it, and how easily that potential can be thwarted and destroyed.

This essay leads me to ask many questions, questions that I hope to explore in this blog.  It helps explain why education issues seem especially relevant and compelling to me.  Education has the power to change people, open up new universes within and without them.  Moreover, more than any other institutions in our society, free and mandatory public education is a source of social justice.  It is the great equalizer, even as it is riddled with inequalities.  It is the tool with which those without money and connections, like Patrick, might improve their stations in life.  And if, as Thomas Jefferson says (and I paraphrase), the prerequisite of democracy is an educated and informed electorate, then our education system is also essential for the functioning of our political system in a society that is filled with people like Patrick as well as people like Michelle Kuo.

And yet, as the story of Patrick demonstrates, the effect of education is often frustratingly limited and ephemeral.  How, and why, has the system failed Patrick?

More related to my own training and interest, I wonder in what way can law and policy improve our education system.  What can law accomplish in this arena, and what are its limits?  How could law make our schools more fair, more transparent, more effective, and what should law refrain from changing even if change might be beneficial, because of other cherished values and principles in our society?

Patrick had access to public education, but he languished in the schools until a compassionate and intelligent educator came, saw the potential in him, and took an interest.  Institutions can only provide a framework for its actors to interact with each other.  It is the people within them that effectuate the goals of the institutions.  Could our education institutions “create” more people like Michelle Kuo?  How can we allow people like her to help more effectively and make those changes more permanent?

The answers, I know, will be as complex and ambiguous as our education system.

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